By Dave Sheinin and Daniel LeDuc
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 31, 2008
No grass was ever greener than the Kentucky blue that spread out across the field at dazzling new Nationals Park last night. No popcorn ever smelled so delicious. No beer ever tasted so refreshing, no hot dog so juicy. The senses were overloaded and overwhelmed on an Opening Night unlike any ever witnessed in these parts -- in a $611 million, taxpayer-built palace in a formerly blighted part of the District, in front of a national television audience.
And no roar ever washed over a building like the one that built and soared and then exploded from the crowd of 39,389 as the final pitch of the night arrived from the mound and landed, following a mighty swing from Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, over the wall in left-center field, a walk-off home run that gave the Nationals a dramatic 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves and provided a fitting end to a memorable night.
"Storybook ending," said Mark Lerner, the Nationals' principal owner. "It was the end of a perfect day. You can't write a script like that."
It was Zimmerman, the 23-year-old face of the Nationals franchise, who was awarded the task of handing the ball before the game to President Bush, who, at 8:13 p.m. strode onto the field to a near-equal mixture of cheers and boos, climbed the pitcher's mound and threw the ceremonial first pitch -- a ball, high and tight -- into the glove of Nationals Manager Manny Acta.
Moments later, after the Nationals had taken the field, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), a stadium opponent when he was a member of the D.C. Council back in the days when there was still some doubt if the structure would ever be built, gave the traditional call of "Play ball!" And finally, the ball was given to veteran pitcher Odalis P¿rez, a Dominican left-hander whose rise from unemployed journeyman six weeks ago to coveted Opening Night starter epitomizes the Nationals' land-of-opportunity roster.
And as the first pitch was thrown, flashes from thousands of cameras went off across the stands, fans capturing the moment that signaled baseball in the nation's capital had arrived at its permanent home. It was 8:21 p.m., and it was strike one.
Nationals Park, as it is known for now -- until its naming rights are sold -- made for a beautiful and elegant debutante, its alabaster outer walls an echo of the District's many famed monuments, its closest seats, priced at $325 apiece, near enough to the field to hear the players' grunts, and its highest ones affording views of the Capitol dome and the Washington Monument.
"Beautiful park," Bush said in the ESPN broadcast booth after throwing out the first pitch. "I'm real proud for the city. This is going to be great for Washington."
The fans braved biting cold (49 degrees at game time and dropping fast) and the unfortunate consequences of a presidential visit (metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs and Secret Service agents), that led to waits of up to 90 minutes to get into the park at some gates.
But fans reported few problems reaching the stadium area. Despite fears about heavy traffic, thoroughfares such as South Capitol Street and M Streets SE were not heavily backed up at 6 p.m. Larry Buck, 61, of Northwest Washington took a cab from Dupont Circle and said the trip took perhaps 15 minutes. "I mean, there was no traffic," Buck said. "It was beautiful."
Stadium-bound fans said the Metro trains were crowded as game time approached, but reported little trouble getting to the ballpark. Similarly, fans who came by car and parked at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium -- the Nationals' former home -- and rode a special shuttle to the park also reported few problems.
All afternoon and evening, they came. Down Half Street SE, from the Navy Yard Metro stop, bundled up against the cold that hit them at the top of the escalators, moving along a formerly anonymous and seedy stretch of asphalt. They walked under arches fashioned of red, white and blue balloons, and past a pair of protesters dressed as President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The protesters shouted anti-war slogans into a bullhorn and waved signs that said, "Boo Bush."
Once past the metal detectors and into the stadium proper, fans posed for pictures with the structure in the background, milled about in the restaurants and entertainment areas in the center field plaza -- not far from the cherry trees that, alas, had not yet blossomed -- and bought hats and sweat shirts in the team store.
And then, at some point, every one of them had the quintessential new-stadium moment, when they caught their first, glimpse of the immaculately groomed, green grass of the playing field, mowed in alternating stripes with a curly W -- the team's logo -- in center field. Old, tired RFK Stadium, where the Nationals resided for the first three years of their existence in Washington, could never have produced such a picture.
The vista beyond the walls in left and center field included four cranes stretching into the sky, testament to the development still to come, a reminder that the ballpark -- an investment by the city that will be paid off through business and energy taxes, an increased sales tax on tickets and food at the ballpark and rent from the Nationals over the next 30 years -- has speeded development of office buildings and condos in the area.
But it is also an evolution that will take time, with supporters saying it will be at least five years before shops, restaurants and bars establish themselves and begin attracting people on days when there is no game.
"It's going to be a center for rebirth: you can already see the condos going up," said Jim McMurre, a fan from Arlington.
When then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) negotiated to bring baseball back to Washington, he was looking for the ballpark to be more than just a home for a team. He wanted it to be an economic catalyst for Southeast Washington, especially near the long neglected Anacostia Riverfront.
"It's one of the best things D.C. government has pulled off," said Tom Rollandini, 53, a Springfield resident who came to last night's game with his wife, father and brother. "It shows what can be done when city government and the major league comes together.
"It will be money well-spent if they continue to do [the development] all along the waterfront. If it ends with this, it's half an accomplishment."
Beyond the cranes in left, the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol Dome strained for a peek inside the stadium's bowl. For fans in some upper-deck sections, the Washington Monument beckoned in the distance.
Hours before the opening pitch the first wave of spectators watched warm-ups and batting practice from the upper deck, where views of the city's monuments were offset by cold winds and a steep climb.
"This is majestic, but my God -- vertigo!" said Liz Montagne, 70, a retired Foreign Service officer who lives in Foggy Bottom. She and her friend Patricia Morton, 72, had seats on the first level, but made the climb to the top corner of the park.
From there, they looked across the diamond, and out beyond the fences, at which point Montagne exclaimed, "Look you can see the Capitol!"
Staff writers Michael E. Ruane, Barry Svrluga, David Fahrenthold and Steve Hendrix contributed to this report.